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Building Collapse Investigated as Possible Homicide

Housing: LAPD questions residents about structural problems at the Echo Park apartments. City has trouble determining ownership.

December 12, 2000|JOSH MEYER and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles police officials said Monday that they are investigating last week's collapse of an aging Echo Park apartment complex as a potential homicide.

Juan Francisco Pineda, a 31-year-old father of two, was killed and at least 35 people were injured when the building suddenly shifted and gave way Friday morning.

City officials also said Monday that they have uncovered "very troubling" information during their own inquiry into the collapse, including a confusing paper trail that has made it nearly impossible to determine who owns and operates the 24-unit building in the 1600 block of West Park Avenue.

Precisely who owned and ran the apartments will become increasingly important as authorities try to determine whether anyone should be held civilly or criminally liable for not fixing any structural deficiencies that might have played a role in the collapse.

"It may have been a total accident and we have no way of knowing that yet," said Richard Bobb, a deputy city attorney who supervises the city's Slum Housing Task Force. "But if it was not an accident, someone will have to be held accountable."

Sgt. John Pasquariello, an LAPD spokesman, said that homicide detectives are investigating complaints by tenants regarding leaky pipes, odd noises, spreading cracks and doors that would not close at the complex in the days before the collapse.

"How did that building fall?" asked Pasquariello. "Was there any criminal intent or negligence that caused that building to collapse?"

Pasquariello cautioned that investigators may determine that no homicide investigation is warranted, once engineers learn why the building shifted and then buckled.

Monday, however, 10 detectives from the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division spent the day interviewing tenants about conditions at the building, repairs that may or may not have been made--and about who they believe owns and operates it.

By evening, detectives had interviewed about 70 residents, ushering them to command posts and police cars away from the building to answer questions.

Bobb and other city officials said they want to identify the building's owners and managers in anticipation of civil lawsuits, which they expect will be filed by those injured in the collapse and by Pineda's relatives.

City housing officials spent the day poring over piles of deeds, trusts and other financial documents, but didn't succeed in determining who actually owns and manages the building.

"There are some very troubling aspects of our investigation thus far," said Bobb, adding that the case appears to be "more complicated than other cases we've investigated."

Although he declined to elaborate, Bobb did say that officials are concerned about their inability to trace ownership of the building.

"Usually it is a lot clearer than this," said Bobb. "But I'm sure we will be able to sort it all out, eventually. There has been a death and we want to make sure we have the right owner before we finger anybody."

The building has had problems in the past, and several owners.

County property records show that the complex was owned by a California general partnership named City Properties from 1986 to 1999. That partnership is comprised of Barry, Dan and Stan Wallman, who say they have been in business together since 1984.

Records show that the Wallmans, Barry Wallman in particular, have extensive apartment holdings throughout Los Angeles, including other buildings that have attracted the scrutiny of city building inspectors.

Two years ago, city officials cited City Properties for the Echo Park building's condition, saying that the 75-year-old wood and stucco complex had a damaged foundation.

And although city inspectors signed off on mandated repairs months later, details were sketchy at best Monday as to how inspectors came to that conclusion.

Then, on July 1, 1999--one month after a city hearing officer ordered Barry Wallman to fix the building's foundation--the property was transferred to a man claiming to be a tenant at the complex named Desiderio Martinez, who listed his address as Apartment 201.

Many tenants at the complex and the building's manager have said they had never heard of Martinez, and authorities said Monday that they have been unable to locate him.

"We'd love to talk to Desiderio Martinez, but he doesn't live there anymore and I don't think he's lived there for the past several months," said Bobb. "We are investigating to see whether he is a legitimate owner or perhaps if he was a straw buyer."

City officials said they were puzzled by the fact that Martinez paid between $22,000 and $90,000 for the property, which was recently assessed at $576,000, according to tax records. Also, Martinez did not borrow any money to finance the transaction, according to county property records.

"I think the property is worth more," said Bobb. "I'm skeptical that this was an above-the-board, fair transaction. It may very well be," but only if it was "part of a larger package of land transfers."

Another possibility that city officials are investigating, they said, is that City Properties transferred ownership to Martinez as a so-called "straw buyer" to shield itself from liability or continued enforcement action by the city. The partners could then have remained active as managers of the building and continued to collect rent from tenants.

Several residents said they wrote rent checks to Barry or Dan Wallman. One resident said two brothers visited the site as recently as last week.

The Wallmans could not be reached for comment, and no one was home at a Camarillo house that Barry Wallman owns.

*

Times staff writers Ted Rohrlich, Kurt Streeter and Thuy-Doan Le contributed to this story.

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